'Sunshine Cleaning': Indie Quirks, By The Bucket

Emily Blunt, Amy Adams i i

Three's Company: A new business venture leads Rose (Amy Adams, right), her son (Jason Spevack), and her sister Norah (Emily Blunt) down a predictably bumpy road. Lacey Terrell/Overture Films hide caption

itoggle caption Lacey Terrell/Overture Films
Emily Blunt, Amy Adams

Three's Company: A new business venture leads Rose (Amy Adams, right), her son (Jason Spevack), and her sister Norah (Emily Blunt) down a predictably bumpy road.

Lacey Terrell/Overture Films

Sunshine Cleaning

  • Director: Christine Jeffs
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Running Time: 102 minutes

Rated: R for some disturbing content

Alan Arkin i i

Reach For It: Alan Arkin reprises a familiar role as the girls' curmudgeonly but good-natured father, a man with a penchant for get-rich-quick schemes. Lacey Terrell/Overture Films hide caption

itoggle caption Lacey Terrell/Overture Films
Alan Arkin

Reach For It: Alan Arkin reprises a familiar role as the girls' curmudgeonly but good-natured father, a man with a penchant for get-rich-quick schemes.

Lacey Terrell/Overture Films

The Making of a Story

It was an NPR story that inspired Sunshine Cleaning writer Megan Holley. Below, a chat with Holley, and the 2001 story that sparked her imagination.

Dripping with market-driven quirkiness, Sunshine Cleaning — a dramedy about two New Mexico sisters struggling to rise above childhood trauma and lumpen apathy — coyly nudges you back to that other Sundance goldmine, Little Miss Sunshine, with which it shares a co-producer (Peter Saraf) and actor Alan Arkin.

Without noticeable shame, Arkin reprises a slightly less profane variant on his warm-hearted Miss Sunshine geezer; here, the character is devoted to beefing up the self-esteem of his equally eccentric grandchild Oscar (Jason Spevack), a freckled sweetheart with the usual gift of annoying school officials while leaning hard on the audience's cute button.

Laden with indie tics — its visual style is generic American outpost grunge, and its lethargic guitar score says "Hands up, sadness is setting in" — Sunshine Cleaning works the heavily trodden blood metaphor to death, from its opening suicide to its heroines' choice of employment: a crime-scene cleanup business that takes the sisters on a journey from quiet desperation to serene self-actualization, plus bucks.

If I've lost you already, come on back. If nothing else, Sunshine Cleaning is a recession-friendly chick-flick; it's blessedly free of shopaholics trawling Manhattan for love and Manolos, and of menopausal broads gallantly doing the splits in spotless fishing towns off the coast of Greece. Think Frozen River, tarted up with down-under irreverence by Kiwi director Christine Jeffs (Sylvia), from a serviceable script by Megan Holley.

Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, both equally at home being funny or sad, deserve better than Sunshine Cleaning, but the relish with which they play off one another will strike you as fresh and infectious, even as you mutter to yourself that you've seen these troubled victims countless times before.

Adams, a china doll with a spine of steel, takes center stage as Rose Lorkowski, a former cheerleading star condemned to toil as a maid while sleeping with the married cop she dated in high school (an excellent Steve Zahn) and rescuing Blunt's clueless Norah from ham-fisted efforts to better her own life.

Sunshine Cleaning constantly risks being derailed by the filmmakers' anxious tendency to gild the lily: One wishes that they had passed on the adopted stray kitten, or on the one-armed nice guy (however astutely underplayed by Capote's Clifton Collins Jr.) who's there to offer a pointed contrast to the other cloddish men clouding the women's horizons. Likewise the sight of Norah rummaging through her dead mother's lovingly preserved cigarette butts and of Rose chatting with the dearly departed through a CB radio, made me cringe.

But if the presence of such a distinguished ensemble underscores the current dearth of roles that do justice to their talents, it also leavens the movie's predictable progression from illusion to self-knowledge with some lovely, unspoken moments that feel less like emotional bullying than the rest: the look of regret mixed with clarifying relief on Rose's face when she confronts her married lover and watches him drive away; the rapture and grief in Norah's eyes when she catches sight of her mother's fleeting brush with fame.

These moments rescue Sunshine Cleaning from its hackneyed ending, which ties up characters, stories and this minor pleasure of a movie into a shiny bow, all to the strains of that lazy-filmmaker anthem "Spirit in the Sky."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.